22 January 2008

Thoughts on MLK Day


Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I found myself thinking about Bessie Coleman (1892-1926). She wasn't just the first African American woman to fly, but the first American woman to hold an international pilot's license period. Her story may be the most improbable of all the aviation pioneers. She was the daughter of a sharecropper, and one of thirteen children. The chances of her ever getting into a plane, even as a passenger, were incredibly remote. Yet in 1920, supposedly while working as a manicurist, Coleman became infatuated with the idea of becoming a pilot. Damned if she didn't manage to persuade some folks to back her in the undertaking! When it became clear no one in the USA would train a black woman to fly a plane, Coleman enrolled in a Berlitz class in French, and then traveled to Paris where she learned to fly a Nieuport Type 82 biplane.

When she returned to the United States, she decided to try and make a go of it, performing in air shows. She quickly became a celebrity, and not just for her sex or the color of her skin, but her pluck, beauty, and daring. Known as "Queen Bess", Coleman seemed undaunted by danger, and her spirit never wavered despite several bad accidents. During a show in Los Angeles in 1922, her plane stalled and spun in, and Coleman shattered her leg and cracked three ribs. Yet, as soon as she recovered, she was back in the air.

Coleman might have had a long career and become more famous than Earhart, but sadly her luck ran out. In 1926, while flying in Jacksonville, Florida, she and her mechanic were killed when her plane went into a nosedive. She was only 34 years old. It was a sad end to an amazing story, one that truly was all about doing what you want to do, for the sake of doing it, and letting no one stand in your way. (From that standpoint, Pancho Barnes would certainly have approved!)

Recently, I watched a film that features not just Bessie Coleman, but dozens and dozens of female pilots. "Wings of Their Own" was directed by Mary Scott and produced by Abby Dress, and came out recently on DVD. You can visit the website at this link. (When visiting, make sure to click on the button on the valentine that appears on the right side of the screen, so you can read bios of the women who participated in the film).

"Wings of Their Own" presents the history of women in aviation, and explains the allure of the skies in terms anyone can appreciate. What's remarkable about the movie, though, is the attitude it takes -- encouraging any woman who might be considering learning to fly, to get out there and do it. That's one of the reasons this film would make an excellent gift to give to your daughter, or any young woman you know who has ever dreamed of learning to fly.

The Airport Journal put it this way, "Each woman in the film projects an enthusiasm that is contagious. Listening to them makes you want to rush out...and take off into the beautiful wild blue yonder." That's just about what I'd say, too!

Speaking of other documentary films, Circus Rosaire, a documentary shot by one of our cinematographers Chad Wilson, and directed by his wife Robyn Bliley, is screening at Slamdance this week! What's more, the film was edited by our own expert cutter, Monique Zavistovski. The film, which is about a family run circus, got a wonderful review in Variety. You can read about the film at the official website, here.